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Mike Gillis's worst season as Canucks GM looks a lot better in hindsight

Six years after Mike Gillis was fired, that disastrous final year surprisingly set the Canucks up for success.
aquilini-torts-gillis.darryl-dyck-cp
Vancouver Canucks' head coach John Tortorella, centre, shakes hands with general manager Mike Gillis, right, as owner Francesco Aquilini watches after Tortorella was hired by the NHL hockey team in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday June 25, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The final year of Mike Gillis’s tenure as Canucks general manager was a disaster. The team tumbled down the standings, their head coach tried to enter an opposing team’s locker room to fight their coach, and what was meant to be a marquee event in the outdoor Heritage Classic turned into the last straw for Roberto Luongo. It’s hard to imagine how things could have gone any worse. 

When the calls came from the Canucks fanbase to fire Gillis, it was hard to argue in his defence.

Six years later, with Jacob Markstrom set to make his first appearance in the NHL All-Star Game and the announcement of Bo Horvat as Canucks captain earlier this year, Gillis has undergone a bit of an image makeover this season. 

Gillis's handling of the goaltending situation has already been re-assessed by the local media, but the trades that sent Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo packing within less than a year of each other are far from the only moves Gillis made during his last 12 months on the job that had a significant impact on the team's future. 

Bye week is upon us, and Markstrom is a hot topic around Vancouver, which makes now as good a time as any to look back not only at the trade that brought him into the organization, but Gillis's final year as Canucks GM, which helped set the stage for the team's recent run of success, despite the team's many well-publicized missteps over the course of the 2013-14 season.

Before we can analyze how the moves Gillis made in his final year turned out for the Canucks, it's important to actually list those moves. For the purposes of this exercise, I'll list them in chronological order. 

May 22, 2013 - Canucks fire head coach Alain Vigneault

June 25, 2013 - Canucks hire John Tortorella as head coach

June 30, 2013 - Canucks trade G Cory Schneider for the 9th overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft (Bo Horvat)

July 5, 2013 - Canucks sign C Brad Richardson to two-year deal worth $2.3 million and D Yannick Weber to one-year deal worth $650k

July 6, 2013 - Canucks sign C Mike Santorelli to one-year deal worth $550k

July 24, 2013 - Canucks re-sign C Jordan Schroeder to one-year deal worth $660k  

July 25, 2013 - Canucks re-sign RW Dale Weise to one-year deal worth $750k

August 22, 2013- Canucks re-sign D Chris Tanev to one year deal worth $1.5 million and D Andrew Alberts to a one-year extension worth $600k

September 29, 2013 - Canucks trade RW Kellan Tochkin and a fourth round pick to Carolina for C Zac Dalpe and C Jeremy Welsh

September 30, 2013 - Canucks claim D Ryan Stanton off waivers

November 1, 2013 - Canucks sign Henrik and Daniel Sedin to identical four-year extensions worth $28.5 million

February 3, 2014 - Canucks trade RW Dale Weise to Montreal for D Raphael Diaz

March 4, 2014 - Canucks trade G Roberto Luongo and LW Steven Anthony to Florida for G Jacob Markstrom and C Shawn Matthias

March 5, 2014 - Canucks trade D Raphael Diaz to New York for a fifth round pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft (Adam Gaudette)

There's a lot to chew on there, so let's break things up into three categories: staff changes, contracts, and trades. 

Staff Changes 

The first major decision of Gillis's final year as Canucks GM was to fire longtime head coach Alain Vigneault. The Canucks had recently been handed their second first-round loss in as many years by the San Jose Sharks, which somehow managed to be even more embarrassing than their 2012 loss against the Los Angeles Kings. 

The Canucks were swept by the lower-seeded Sharks and looked like a shadow of the team that went to the Cup Final in 2011 despite keeping the score relatively close in all four games. 

While Vigneault is unquestionably the most accomplished coach in Canucks history, the decision to cut bait following the loss was widely considered to be the right move at the time, and is still relatively easy to defend with the benefit of hindsight. It was clear after two straight first-round exits that the team needed a shake-up, and firing the coach is often the easiest step to take towards that goal. 

The hope was that a new coach could breathe life into the team's old core and give the team one or two last shots at playoff success. Unfortunately, that didn't exactly pan out. 

The team hired John Tortorella just over a month later. While it was easy to see what the front office saw in him, the hiring was a total disaster. Torts rarely held practice, alienated a significant chunk of his players, and never even bothered to get a house in BC. Instead, he opted to live across the border in Point Roberts, and spent so little time in Rogers Arena that the team installed a Murphy bed in his office in the hopes that it would encourage him to occasionally skip the commute back to Washington State. 

There was also the infamous Bob Hartley incident. On January 18, 2014, in a game against the Calgary Flames, Tortorella became so incensed by then-Flames bench boss Bob Hartley that he attempted to storm into Calgary's dressing room to confront him. In a press conference following the game, Tortorella essentially admitted his intention was to engage in a physical altercation with Hartley. 

While I'm sure many people who have interacted with Hartley have also had that impulse, the decision to act on it during work hours was probably unwise. Tortorella was suspended for a good portion of the season, and the team failed to right the ship upon his return.

Tortorella's press conferences were illuminating and compelling during his brief stint behind Vancouver's bench, but that's the only positive takeaway from his lone season with the Canucks. The on-ice product was a mess, and it tipped the team's relationship with Roberto Luongo, which was already precarious, past the point of no return. 

At least the team got a second-round pick out of it when Tortorella was hired by the Columbus Blue Jackets, thanks to the short-lived compensatory pick rule. 

Tortorella's reputation has improved immensely in the time that has passed since his firing in 2014, as has that of his assistant Mike Sullivan, who has gone on to success as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it was clear early on that he was the wrong choice in Vancouver. When you consider the effect Torts had on the on-ice product and the roster decisions his hiring precipitated, his hiring was likely the decision that ultimately spelled the end for Gillis in Vancouver. 

On the executive side, the Canucks also made sweeping changes to their scouting department, naming Eric Crawford Director of Player Personnel, while Ron Delorme was moved into the role of Chief Amateur Scout. The decision to shake-up the scouting department was a long time coming, and the decision to promote Eric Crawford appears to have been wise, given the fact that the Canucks' 2013 Draft was a marked improvement over years past (although that's not saying much). 

If we zoom out from the final year of Gillis's tenure and look at the totality of his resume, his failure to act quickly and decisively in overhauling the Canucks' floundering amateur scouting department was probably his biggest mistake as GM, and he himself is on the record admitting to that fact. 

Contracts

The salary cap decreased by nearly 6 million dollars for the 2013-14 season, which left Gillis with limited funds to sign players and fill out the remainder of the Canucks' roster. It also put his team at a significant disadvantage heading into the season given their lack of young talent in the AHL. 

When you consider how little Gillis had to work with, the Canucks'  2013 free agent signings look like a tidy bit of work. The front office's decisions to re-up on Jordan Schroeder and Andrew Alberts were of little consequence, but just about every other deal worked out in the Canucks favour. 

Brad Richardson was a solid addition to the team's centre depth, which had been an area of need since the departure of Manny Malhotra, and Mike Santorelli was arguably the team's best player before suffering an unfortunate season-ending injury. Yannick Weber was unfairly maligned during his time in Vancouver, but was a perfectly fine third pairing defender with offensive punch. He even put up 11 goals the following season, which is still the most by a Canucks defender since 2012. They also re-signed Dale Weise to a cheap deal, which would go on to be a very important transaction in shaping the team's future. (More on that later.)

Most importantly, the team re-signed Chris Tanev to a one-year deal at $1.5 million dollars. He would go on to cement himself as a core piece on Vancouver's blue line in 2013-14, posting stellar underlying numbers and becoming the Canucks’ second-most utilized defenseman on the PK behind Dan Hamhuis. 

Of all the moves Gillis made during his time with the organization, finding Tanev is perhaps the most unheralded. He's been a mainstay on the team's back end for years, logging heavy minutes. He now ranks 10th all-time among Canucks defenders in games played, which is impressive for a college free agent signing.

Later in the season, the team also signed Henrik and Daniel Sedin to matching 4-year extensions. They would go on to lose a step or two over the course of their remaining years, but remained impactful until the end. As far as legacy contracts go, the team really could have done a lot worse, and since the mandate from ownership was to extend the team's Cup window, Gillis had little choice in the matter. 

Most fans are very happy the two faces of the franchise got to retire as Vancouver Canucks, even if a trade could have been a massive boon to the team's rebuilding efforts.

Trades 

Before we get to the big-ticket items, let's get the minor stuff out of the way. On September 29, the Canucks traded Kellan Tochkin and a fourth-round pick for Zac Dalpe and Jeremy Welsh as a bid to help flesh out the remainder of the team's roster. It was a nothing trade in the grand scheme of things, and one that could be considered a minor loss given that the team would be in the midst of a full-blown retool less than a year later, and likely could have put that pick to better use.

The team also traded Dale Weise to the Montreal Canadiens for Raphael Diaz, who would go on to play a surprisingly integral role in the Canucks' rebuild for reasons no one could have foreseen at the time. The trade was not particularly well-received at the time, especially given the success Weise would go on to have with the Canadiens shortly thereafter. 

Then there were the two biggest and most controversial moves: the Canucks dealt both of their goaltenders in the span of nine months. 

They traded Cory Schneider at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft for the ninth overall pick, which they used to select Bo Horvat, and dealt Roberto Luongo and minor-leaguer Steven Anthony to the Panthers in exchange for Jacob Markstrom and Shawn Matthias. 

Both trades were derided by fans and media at the time as being poor returns for two of the league's premiere goaltenders, and the Luongo trade in particular looked like an unforced error due to the fallout from the Heritage Classic fiasco that saw Luongo benched for the marquee outdoor game in favour of backup Eddie Lack. Public opinion quickly turned against Gillis due to the handling of the goaltending situation, and the Luongo deal helped push his relationship with the organization past the boiling point. 

Litres of digital ink have been spilled on the Luongo and Schneider deals and their subsequent rehabilitation in the eyes of the fans and media, but what's often missed is the fact that, in retrospect, the Canucks arguably got better value for their goaltenders than just about any team in recent NHL history. 

The ninth pick that Cory Scheider was dealt for remains the highest pick a team has received in exchange for a goaltender in the post-lockout era, while a utility forward and now-starting goaltender look like fair value for Luongo in hindsight given the likelihood that his back-diving contract was an albatross around Gillis's neck during negotiations.

In his final move as GM, Gillis dealt Raphael Diaz to the New York Rangers in exchange for a fifth-round pick, which the Canucks used to select Adam Gaudette. Gillis's role in the selection is notable because Gaudette was actually the second player the Canucks selected in the fifth round that year  — without that extra pick, the Canucks wouldn’t have Gaudette. While it would be unfair to give Mike Gillis credit for the Scouting Department's ability to unearth Gaudette late in the draft, he still gets some credit for acquiring the pick.

Looking Back 

In hindsight, Gillis's final year with the Canucks' organization doesn’t look quite as disastrous as it did six years ago. At the time, it was widely seen as a complete failure that caused the team to implode over the course of just a single season, but it seems clear now that the team was in dire need of a rebuild, and a successful season likely would have just prolonged the inevitable. 

The Tortorella hiring was an unmitigated disaster, and while you can see the reasoning behind it if you squint hard enough, it's still difficult to defend even if you take a charitable view of the situation. Bringing in a fiery presence like Tortorella was intended to give the team's core one last kick in the behind and make them a contender again, but in practice, it could not have gone worse.

Outside of that decision, however, the Canucks' transactions in 2013-14 look quite good with the benefit of hindsight. Gillis allegedly tried to sell ownership on a rebuild in the aftermath of the team's loss to the Sharks in the 2013 playoffs, but ownership wasn’t buying. In retrospect, his assessment was correct, and considering he only had 9 months to acquire futures and his efforts to do so were severely handicapped by ownership's mandate to make the playoffs, his final acts as GM have played a surprisingly large role in the success the team is seeing this season. 

Many have argued that Gillis left his successor with very little to work with, but Bo Horvat, Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev, and Adam Gaudette is not the worst collection of pieces for a rebuild. That said, he left little in the prospect pool beyond those pieces.

The return he received for each of his goaltenders looks particularly good. Bo Horvat is now the team's captain and second-line centre, while Jacob Markstrom is arguably more responsible for the team's success than any other player on the roster. 

When Gillis realized the offers weren't there for Luongo, he turned to the higher-value asset in Schneider, and received a core piece in return. When the Luongo situation deteriorated, he took a gamble on a big, athletic goaltender with draft pedigree who could perhaps benefit from the tutelage of Rollie Melanson, and it paid off.

The acquisition of Chris Tanev as an undrafted free agent has also flown largely under the radar, despite Tanev being one of the best undrafted college free agent signings in NHL history. Considering the team's well-publicized struggles to find impact defensemen before the arrival of Quinn Hughes, this is perhaps an area where Gillis deserves more credit. 

Conclusion

Looking back on Gillis' final year in the NHL (so far), there are a number of lessons to take away.   

1 | Sometimes it can take up to five years to truly be able to assess the impact a transaction can have on a team. No one could have predicted the Luongo and Schneider deals would turn out so well for the Canucks back in 2013-14. While that shouldn't stop anyone from assessing deals at the time that they are made, it serves as a reminder that it can be very hard to understand the full scope of a trade or signing at the time that it occurs. 

From a fan perspective, it's important to realize that when individual journalists or pundits give their initial reaction, they are often working with limited information. It's a completely valid way to deliver analysis — especially because "wait and see" is a very boring and low-effort response to have to any piece of news — but it's also less likely to be accurate and detailed than the careful analysis that can be provided a day or two after the fact. 

2 | Sometimes a GM's biggest acquisitions come by way of total fluke. That's certainly the case with the pick Gillis acquired for Raphael Diaz, and it's arguably the case with Markstrom as well. While it can be tempting to chalk up every fortuitous trade or signing to genius, it's often the result of pure, dumb luck. 

3 | The idea that Gillis left his successor nothing to work with or build around is hogwash. While Jim Benning certainly didn't come into an ideal situation in Vancouver, his predecessor did leave him a few decent young pieces and a stable of vets to round out the team's depth or be used as assets in potential trades. Bo Horvat, Jacob Markstrom, and Chris Tanev have all gone on to be a significant part of the team's core, and players like Dan Hamhuis, Brad Richardson, and Yannick Weber are all still playing in the NHL some 5-6 years later.

4 | It never hurts for a GM to try and recoup value on an asset that's no longer of use to their team. The Canucks were strong-armed into making the deal that sent Luongo to Florida, but Gillis still deserves some credit for prying two legitimate assets with only one potential negotiating partner. In the case of the Diaz trade, he recouped an asset for a player that had no future with the organization, and that asset turned out to be Gaudette. You can't win the lottery if you don't have a ticket. 

Ultimately, the biggest takeaway from Gillis's final year on the job is that even the most flawed GM has strengths that may go unnoticed over the course of their employment. Fans are quick to compare Gillis to his successor, Jim Benning, and battle lines are often drawn over which GM is believed to have done a better job of enacting his vision. 

Those debates are likely to continue for the foreseeable future, but the reality is that both GMs produced some major wins over their respective tenures, and some bitter losses as well. Gillis and Gilman did some fantastic work in terms of contracts, while Jim Benning has successfully revamped the failing scouting department he inherited. By the same token, Benning has handicapped himself at times by handing out massive contracts to depth players, and for someone with Gillis's reputation as a progressive thinker, he never came close to figuring out how to optimize the team's approach to drafting and developing young players. 

One thing is clear, though. A lot of Gillis's actions as GM look a lot better in retrospect, and some of the criticisms he received during his time in Vancouver ought to be walked back. If players like Horvat and Markstrom can continue to make an impact over the next few years, that will go a long way towards rehabilitating his image in the eyes of Canucks fans.